Barricade journalism in Belarus
The Belarusian media more and more look like barricade journalism. The state media fiercely fight their non-state colleagues and vice versa.
Endless clichés, mutual accusations and the language of hatred often leave little space for decent journalism.
The lack of professional ethics on the two sides of the barricades makes the situation more complicated. Outright propaganda campaigns, conspiracy theories and plagiarism undermine the public discourse and make the public opinion vulnerable to all sorts of manipulation. Non-state media sometimes try to outperform their state-paid salaries in the art of manipulation.
Confrontation between the media that represent opposite political views is a typical phenomenon in the world. And the more tense the relations between political opponents in a country the more uncompromising the media become in treating one another.
In Belarus this confrontation has been brought to an extreme level. According to the well-known Belarusian journalist and media expert Aliaksandr Klaskouski, the media sector in the country reminds barricades. The majority of journalists think in the categories of "us" and "them". On the one side of the barricades is the pro-governmental Belarusian Union of Journalists (BUJ). And on the other side – the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ).
Generally, this situation does not surprise. In a repressive authoritarian state that still allows some space for independent activities this is inevitable. As the experts of the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) point out, Belarus remains a politically deeply divided country. The media reflect such divisions and sustain them by a constant flow of behind-the-barricades reporting.
In February the Liberal Club think tank held a round-table discussion "How to Overcome Barricade Thinking in the Belarusian Media". The event sparked huge interest among journalists and the general public. Representatives of the two conflicting media associations took part in it.
In the opinion of the majority of the speakers, the media barricades will last as long as the incumbent political regime. The authorities have no interest in easing their firm control of the media while only demonopolisation and unrestricted market competition can solve the barricade problem. Free competition will expand the Belarusian media market from the current small volume of USD 70 million and stimulate an inflow of serious investment and ideas. Journalists will then have to produce high-quality product that will satisfy different categories of consumers.
But before that happens the Belarusian media will continue to look like a barricade. And this confrontation would not be as noteworthy if it were not for the impact it makes on the whole of society.
The issue of professional ethics among the journalist community comes to the spotlight.
With the state media everything is clear. One can watch news on state TV channels or read politically-sensitive materials in government-owned newspapers and see that professional ethics remains an unknown animal there. Black PR and badly researched materials dominate the political agenda of the state media.
But what about the independent media, who normally claim to be promoting European values through their work?
Unfortunately, it looks like they fail to differ a lot. According to Aliaksandr Klaskouski, there are multiple examples when independent media degrade to the level of "oppositional primitivism". They produce the same poor propaganda instead of quality journalism.
Moreover, sometimes it looks like some non-state media try to outperform their government-owned counterparts in violating the norms of professional ethics. Two recent scandals that both involved Charter'97, a popular independent Internet resource, serve as good examples.
The first scandal developed around the issue of plagiarism. A group of Belarusian journalists and analysts accused Charter'97 of reposting their publications without naming the authors at all. In other cases editors of Charter'97 kept the names of the authors but changed the contents of the original articles.
The other scandal broke out at an OSCE-organised event in Vienna. The editor of Charter'97 publicly accused the owner of another popular non-state Internet portal TUT.BY of cooperating with the Belarusian KGB. The representative of Charter97 concluded that TUT.BY helped to undermine democracy in Belarus.
These two scandals reflect the atmosphere in the independent media sector. Despite declarations of moral superiority to the state media many independent journalists demonstrate complete ignorance of the basics of professional ethics.
This problem of poor professional ethics in the non-state media sector tops the agenda of the newly established media watchdog Mediakritika.by.
Arguments of the Conflicting Sides
According to some observers, the barricade situation can only improve if the two journalists associations get together and agree to establish a code of conduct. But such a scenario looks hardly possible. The level of mistrust between the official BUJ and the independent BAJ is enormous.
The argument of independent journalists in this confrontation goes that the state media enjoy total protection from the government and receive generous funding from the national budget. For example, in 2013 the national budget allocates about USD 77 million for all the state media. Independent journalists rightly point out that this violates the principles of fair competition because independent media are not subject to such funding schemes.
The state media, in their turn, normally accuse their independent counterparts of living exclusively on foreign grants. As a result, they say, non-state media totally depend on external "masters" and, therefore, represent the interests of foreigners rather than of the Belarusian people.
Pro-governmental journalists claim that without foreign grants the independent media will quickly become insolvent as they do not enjoy popularity among the people. To support the claim they refer to various public opinion polls, particularly conducted by the Information and Analytical Centre of the Presidential Administration (which, of course, has questionable credibility).
In 2012 the Centre studied what newspapers the Belarusians trust most of all. Their research revealed that the leading state-owned newspapers (Respublika, Sovetskaya Belarus, Narodnaya Gazeta, Zvyazda) enjoyed much higher levels of trust among their readers than the leading papers in the other camp (BelGazeta, Svobodnye Novosti, Narodnaya Volya).
Interestingly, independent surveys also register slightly higher trust levels for the state media. Thus, one of the latest surveys by the IISEPS shows that 55% of the population trust state media, while only 39% say they trust independent media.
Impact on Society
Unfortunately, the media confrontation and lack of professional ethics among journalists on both sides of the barricades shape the public opinion in Belarus. The latter has become divided, poorly informed, prejudiced and extremely biassed. It perceives the complex Belarusian reality purely in "black" or "white" terms.
If a society that lives in such a black-and-white world suddenly faces serious challenges and has to make important historic decisions, there is almost a guarantee that these decisions will be painful and wrong. And both the state and non-state media camps will be responsible for it.